For years, Marjorie Kelley, a stay-at-home mom in Greenwich, Conn., followed the preferred suburban method for raising children.
She kept the four of them booked solid.
"My kids were involved with many, many activities," she says. "Ice skating, hockey, soccer, ballet, tap dancing, chess lessons, Spanish lessons, Chinese lessons, piano lessons, violin lessons, swimming lessons, lacrosse."
Like many middle-class and upper-middle-class parents, Kelley, 45, said she ran herself ragged, making sure her kids got to every activity.
"You won't deny your child anything," she says. "You want your child to have everything you never had."
But like some psychologists and child development experts, Kelley eventually wound up wondering: Was she really helping her kids?
Kelley can't be the only one asking that question. A pair of surveys of hundreds of kids by University of Michigan in 1981 and 1997 found the time children spent in organized activities grew substantially, while their free time declined.
‘Competitive Adult Sport’
That trend has some psychologists worried. Several bemoan the loss of free time for kids as a loss of imagination and creativity. And they are concerned about the pressure over-structured childhoods place on the shoulders of young people and their parents, who have to plan it all.
"It's made parenting the most competitive adult sport," says Alvin Rosenfeld, a psychiatrist and author of the book, The Overscheduled Child. "We're trying to professionalize childhood."
But without firm proof that a heavy load of structured activities is harmful, parents, sociologists and psychologists continue to debate the advantages and disadvantages of a supercharged childhood, and how much is too much.
Most stress that having some organized activities can be helpful for kids, and some children could even benefit from additional structure in their lives. The key is moderation, many say.
"This becomes 'over-programming' if the child never has a chance to manage his or her time or if the child does not really enjoy what he or she is doing," says Judy Myers-Walls, an associate professor in child development and family studies at Purdue University.
When Opportunity Knocks
On the one hand, says Demie Kurz, who is working on a book about teen interaction in families, when opportunity knocks, joining the right extracurriculars can make the difference between acceptance to an Ivy League and a safety school.
"If your computer club at school is going to go to Nepal and help set up some computers in classes or something, you have to be in that club," says Kurz, co-director of the University of Pennsylvania's women's studies program.
"Imagination and creativity, for some people, you get by sitting under a tree on a beautiful day and letting your mind go," Kurz said. "For others of us, it's a matter of exposure. It's hard to know what's possible unless you're exposed to it."
On the other hand, some psychologists say many kids nowadays could benefit emotionally and intellectually from more time daydreaming under that tree.
"There's no world that's a kid's world," said Rosenfeld, who sees kids and adults in his New York City and Greenwich, Conn., offices. "There's nothing left the parents can't intrude on."
Does It Matter?
Anecdotally, child development experts say they see the effects of overprogramming in children and young adults who are burned out, cannot manage their own schedules, lack creativity, or suffer identity crises and breakdowns after fast-track schedules carried them from the womb to adulthood.
"If you look at the resumés of the kids at these elite schools, they're on steroids. The kids are frauds," Rosenfeld said. "We're raising to high positions kids whose … major skills are playing the system right."
However, a researcher in the University of Michigan studies says the heavily scheduled three- to 12-year-olds she interviewed seemed none the worse for wear.
"The kids with the structured activities seemed very content and not stressed out," says Sandra Hofferth, now a professor of family studies at the University of Maryland at College Park.
She added that while the Michigan studies found increasing structure and decreasing free time for kids, they also showed more parent-child time. But Rosenfeld and other critics say the finding reflects snowballing amounts of time parents and kids spend racing from event to heavily planned event.
"Parents are doing this because they're anxious," Rosenfeld said. "If you talk to most parents, they know that this isn't good, but they're afraid to stop — they're worried the kids will fall behind."
Kelley, an acquaintance of Rosenfeld's wife, converted to his philosophy about three years ago out of necessity: She physically couldn't keep up with the demands of organizing the activities of three children — then aged 9, 8 and 6 — after having a fourth. In hopes of paring down the activities, she asked the older kids to list their true desires.
"It was not what I expected," she says. "One child said, 'When I'm sick, I want you to bring me breakfast in bed and read me a story.' … Another said, 'I want to go on more excursions … spur-of-the-moment things.'
"The common thread was time," she said. "They wanted my time."
So Kelley — whose family has since moved to New Albany, Ohio, for unrelated reasons — let her kids drop their heavy schedules and spend more time as they chose.
"The first thing I noticed right off the bat was my children's attention span: It went from having to change activities every 10 minutes to spending hours on activities," she said. "It was as if their creativity got turned on. They had time to think and just do nothing."
Her kids still participate in organized activities — but far fewer, and ones they chose themselves — an approach favored by several child-development experts.
"My son's become completely obsessed by mathematics," she said. "I didn't think of the math club."
David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University and author of the influential book, The Hurried Child, says kids need some structure in their lives, but parents who make most decisions in their children's lives can "make kids a little more passive intellectually."
"I think character is making responsible choices, and when children play they make choices," Elkind said.
Elkind, 70, remembers his youth in a Detroit neighborhood where kids played freely, showed the initiative to organize their play and pick up sides, and the creativity to invent games of their own. A community of parents watched from windows to make sure kids were OK.
Like Elkind, many middle-class and upper-middle-class parents remember laissez faire childhoods involving pickup games and long summer days, says Annette Lareau, an associate professor of sociology at Temple University who studied the matter. Yet, almost all of them are raising children with heavily structured play dates, music lessons and organized sports, she said.
"I desperately wanted to interview a middle-class child who did not have a single activity, and I could not find one," Lareau said. "I asked everybody I knew."
But the old-fashioned childhood the middle-class parents remember is not dead, she said. In her study of 88 children between eight and 10 years old from the Northeast and Midwest — in which she observed and interviewed kids of different social classes and their families, at home and at school — she found some parents still practicing the less-structured approach.
"The working-class and poor children had a life similar to what the middle-class parents had when they were growing up," said Annette Lareau, a sociologist at Temple University whose forthcoming book on her study will be called, Inside Families: The Importance of Social Class and Children's Daily Lives.
"Even though working-class and poor children had an entire weekend with nothing scheduled, we virtually never heard them complain about being bored," she said. "Instead, it was middle-class children who complained of being bored when they had free time between activities."
Perhaps coincidentally, she also found middle-class kids more demanding, more likely to verbally attack parents and harder to impress. The working-class and poor kids were more likely to have strong bonds with extended family such as cousins, to recognize boundaries between kids and adults, and to call adults by honorifics such as "mister" or "miss." Middle-class children often referred to adults by their first names.
"I think … middle-class children are being taught a series of skills that are potentially very valuable in the workplace, yet this training comes at a cost," Lareau said. "The middle-class children, they learn to line up, they learn to look people in the eye, but … they don't get a chance to hang out and often they have weaker kinship ties."
Some Need Structure, Some Don't
Experts say it can be a fine balance, with a hyper-regimented middle-class child possibly needing much more down time, and a poorer child in more chaotic surroundings possibly needing more structured activities to teach other life skills — structured activities that, unfortunately, some poor families cannot afford.
"[I'm] not sure science has nailed down any answers, but research on attachment, relationships, personality and human development seem to agree with the lyrics of James Taylor's song: 'The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time,'" said John Constantino, an assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
"How can kids do that if they're constantly structured or entertained or made to feel that they have to be functioning in some way?" he said. "Many aren't given the opportunity to learn on their own how to enjoy the passage of time.
"Long live summer vacation."